Among the Nations

I know we’re just past the season where we have to repent our sins, but I just finished reading the incomparable Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt. I loved it, and in solidarity with all of the excellent essayists therein, I thought I’d confess to something that often causes me to grapple with my own guilt.

I live with non-Jewish roommates. I am dating a non-Jew. I live in a decidedly non-Jewish neighborhood (for that, at least, I think we can blame economics). A solid chunk of my closest friends are—surprise!—not Jewish. During my last year of college, one of my housemates actually said to me, “You know, for someone who does Jewish stuff as much as you, you don’t really hang out with, you know, Jews too much, do you?” In the tightly interwoven Jewish community, I am a thread that frequently wanders away on her own.

I’m not one hundred percent sure how this trend of living so thoroughly among the nations got started, although from time to time I idly form theories. (I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to too much PBS as a young child, or the fact that I failed to thrive at a sort-of-Jewish sleep-away camp—an experience that I think consisted mostly of hiking by myself while wealthy girls from Long Island blew-dry their hair and mocked me). I’d like to blame it on my innate curiosity and love of diversity. Possibly it’s that I am not quite the Jew I think I should be—so who am I to differentiate or judge? Most likely, I am sure, is the thing that people have been telling me my whole life: I am one stubborn pain-in-the-butt. I fell into good friendships with people who I liked because they were and are kindhearted, well-intentioned, brilliant, hysterically funny or some combination thereof.

I have been mightily blessed with quite an impressive assemblage of Jewish women who have acted, over the course of several years, as friends, mentors and guides. Without them I’d doubtlessly be lost. Their guidance, however, has not necessarily erased the twinge of loneliness as I explain for the seven-hundredth time that no, I’m not making a nice dinner and lighting candles to be romantic—it’s Shabbat! Shabbat? It means, like, “the Sabbath.” Yes, another Jew thing. Yes, I do seem to do them a lot.

My Jewish identity experienced a renaissance after my freshman year in college, and the obsession to learn more, learn deeper only burns brighter day after day. It has been, though, something of a solitary journey. I am acutely aware of the communalism of Jewish identity, but by and large that’s had something of an abstract feel for me. Now, post-college, things are starting to shift a little. My school, among the more liberal of the East coast hippie hangouts, has as its motto “You are different; so are we.” The Lilith office is more about “Please pass the kugel—and by the way, what are your plans for the hag coming up?” I am enjoying this new experience, but I don’t regret my earlier ones. Being a little lonely in my initial post-Jewish-identity-crisis stage gave me space to reason things out on my own, to formulate and marinate in the idea of what kind of a Jew I wanted to be.

And it taught me something about those non-Jewish friends—whose indelible place in my life puzzles many people. I have a whole cadre of chaverim who are fluent in what we dubbed JewSpeak, which is, to them, a totally foreign tongue. It is possible that you have not lived until you have heard “Gut Shabbos!” out of the mouth of a Lutheran, Norwegian-stock Minnesotan. My Jewish community welcomed my fervor with knowing smiles and open arms, and my GoyAllies ™ happily listened to me ramble, breathless with excitement, even when they had no idea what I was talking about. That’s love, right there, and at times it obliterates any strangeness or guilt I may feel when I’m the only Jew in the room not to know the name, age, marital status and social security number of every other Jew in a five-mile radius.
I can see myself being pulled slowly into the vortex of Jewish community as life progresses from here, can see myself being woven ever more intricately into the delicate pattern of this huge, beautiful, messy tapestry. But I doubt I’ll ever unravel these earlier ties completely. I learned just recently that the commandment to be l’or goyim isn’t just translated as “a light to the nations”—it can also be read as “a light among the nations”.

Makes sense to me.

–Mel Weiss,
Lilith’s Assistant Editor

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